Thursday, November 28 2019
By Michael D. White, author and freelance writer
There is an old adage that nothing is really new. And, in fact, it really isn’t.
The screw, the wheel, the inclined plane, the stirrup, movable type, the assembly line were all lauded as “uses of innovative technology to improve products or processes.”
What were then seen as innovations, we see today as the cutting-edge integration of new technologies, processes and methods into the production and design of products in an effort to remain competitive and add value. We call it advanced manufacturing.
Generally speaking, organizations across a wide spectrum of industries are implementing advanced manufacturing processes into innovative, affordable, and reliable products with technologically complex levels of design.
Implementing those processes involves the utilization of sophisticated; high-performance computer technologies; rapid prototyping techniques such as 3D printing; precision application; advanced robotics and automation; and ‘clean and green’ sustainable processes.
In addition, they have the capability of handling new industrial platforms such as composite materials; and the ability to produce custom manufacture at high or low volume, all under the aegis of sophisticated control systems that monitor increasingly intelligent production systems.
A New ‘Industrial Revolution’
Advanced manufacturing is, in a sense, sparking a new Industrial Revolution that has seismically shifted the way in which things are made.
This Revolution is spurred by a variety of far-ranging domestic U.S. and international trends, such as increasing labor costs in China; the reduced value of the U.S. dollar; the increasing costs of the transportation and logistics supply chains needed to get finished products to end users; and the unprecedented surge in American oil and natural gas production—all of which have led to an increased demand for sophisticated production machinery, declining energy costs in the U.S., and what is an almost uniform lack of quality control and intellectual property protection in other markets.
"In the foreseeable future categorical developments facilitated with integration with computers will...be largely impacted by the state of raw material and energy availability,” according to Paul Fowler of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council for Advanced Manufacturing (NACFAM), which, as early as 2001, clearly saw the path that advanced manufacturing would take in the following decades.
Auto and Aerospace at the Fore
Established manufacturers in several major industries—auto manufacturing and aerospace, at the fore—are also implementing advanced manufacturing techniques to improve performance through the application of new technologies that enhance their processes and methods.
For example, Volvo Trucks North America is utilizing 3D printing technology to produce tools and fixtures used in the manufacturing process at its New River Valley (NRV) plant in Dublin, Virginia, where all trucks for the North American market are built.
The implementation of 3D–printed manufacturing tools “enables quicker production and continuous quality improvements,” says Adam Crowder, manager of Advanced Manufacturing Technology at NRV.
Volvo’s 12 international manufacturing plants are collaborating to develop new 3D printing applications and techniques to improve manufacturing.
There are now, according to Crowder, more than 500 manufacturing tools and fixtures in use on the NRV shop floor which were produced at the Dublin plant using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printing, which uses a laser to turn powdered plastic material into a solid structure such as brake valve fitting and roof seal gauges, luggage door pins, and the single-piece diffusers used in the paint atomizer cleaning process.
The use of SLS to produce the diffusers, alone, saved Volvo more than $1,000 per part, as well as eliminating the need for a multiple-piece component.
The use of this technology “increases flexibility in manufacturing, reducing the wait for new parts from vendors by simply printing them in-house. These capabilities therefore reduce inventory expenses as well, eliminating space needed to house traditionally produced tools, driving costs down in end products for customers,” he says.
According to Todd Szallay, Director-Advanced Manufacturing and Technology, at Northrop Grumman, “Accelerated change and heightened complexity means we must continuously innovate. The Factory of the Future is a digital factory where the virtual and physical world is fully integrated across not just the manufacturing process but the entire life of a product. Building stuff has never been more high-tech.”
As a result, he says, “new craft skills are taking form in the Factory of the Future, for tasks such as creating a 3D model of a product, then transforming it into the real, physical thing.”
The company is partnering with Aerojet Rocketdyne to apply advanced manufacturing techniques to the production of a scramjet, or supersonic combustion ramjet, an air-breathing jet engine capable of driving an aircraft beyond Mach 5—five times the speed of sound.
Now, both companies think they may have found the solution—additive manufacturing that employs 3D printing to produce scramjet engines.
That process, they say, can not only iterate through design revisions faster, but produce them far cheaper than they’ve been able to in the past. Even more importantly, advanced manufacturing “enables complex internal engine geometries that would have been more difficult to produce via traditional manufacturing.”
‘Critical to Sustaining Prosperity’
According to a 2001 White Paper researched by NACFAM, “The application of advanced technologies, ranging from information and computing technologies to the use of new materials and process technologies, are critical to sustaining prosperity in the future.”
The organization recommended that the federal government “expand investments in seven major research areas (emerging or breakthrough process technologies, intelligent controls and systems, environmental quality and energy efficiency, pervasive modeling, interoperability of software systems, knowledge management and learning systems, and web-based design and manufacturing.”
NACFAM also called for “the creation of a federal interagency committee to coordinate and oversee this investment strategy across the government, drawing representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA, and the Departments of Commerce, Defense and Energy.
The Association’s recommendations were, over time, adopted.
For example, in early 2018, the Department of Energy (DOE) infused $35 million into projects being undertaken by 24 manufacturers across the country in an effort to stimulate the application of advanced manufacturing processes.
In June of this year, the DOE said it would pump $89 million to support “innovative, advanced manufacturing research and development projects” such as domestic manufacturing for energy storage in three areas “that will improve the global competitiveness of the U.S. by catalyzing innovation around manufacturing of key energy technologies” and “reduce industrial process energy intensity—innovations for the manufacture of advanced materials; lower thermal budget processes for industrial efficiency and productivity; and connected, flexible and efficient advanced manufacturing facilities and energy systems.
NACFAM’s foresight in urging the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies by the private sector and concurrent federal interagency oversight has served as the centerpieces of such initiatives as the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, and the Manufacturing USA (MUSA) network.
MUSA is a national network of manufacturing innovation Institutes. Over the past several years, the Departments of Commerce, Defense, and Energy have provided a combined $1 billion to establish the network’s institutes and to promote research, development, and commercialization of advanced manufacturing technologies.
In May 2019, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report stating that, since December 2016, the Manufacturing USA network alone “has grown from 11 to 14 manufacturing innovation Institutes that are implementing a wide array of activities aimed at developing manufacturing capabilities in promising new advanced technologies…As of March 2019, most institutes were operating under an initial five to seven year period of federal financial assistance.”
Finding and Training Workers
One of MUSA’s primary goals is overcoming the problem of finding workers to fill the positions being created by increasingly utilized advanced manufacturing technologies.
The problem was underscored by a recent U.S. government research study showing that 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturing companies cannot fill all available jobs, even as new plants and training facilities open. The challenge to fill jobs in advanced manufacturing is particularly acute due to the vast skills shortages prompted by the rise of advanced technologies and the projected retirement of a significant percentage of the manufacturing sector’s employee base.
For this reason, the National Association of Manufacturers has pledged to train one million workers over the next five years to fill the need. Companies that perform highly skilled manufacturing are also taking training into their own hands, building high tech facilities to train workers up faster and more effectively.
According to the Robotics Manufacturing Review, referring to a MUSA report published earlier this year, “Spurred by reports of a shortfall of 2.4 million workers between 2018 and 2028, training the workforce on advanced manufacturing processes is key to most, if not all, of the institutes, the report said. Each of the 14 institutes supports the recruitment, development, and in some cases, placement of advanced manufacturing workers in its particular technology area. Education and workforce activities span ‘K through gray’ (from kindergartners to senior citizens).”
Out of the 205,254 individuals who participated in institute-led advanced manufacturing education and workforce activities in FY2018, the MUSA report said, more than 200,000 were students involved in an educational or training program, while 2,630 individuals were ones already in the workforce who completed an institute-led certificate, apprenticeship, or training program, and 2,455 teachers and trainers participating in institute-led instructor training programs.
Coast to Coast
Examples abound of economic development agencies and trade associations across the country that have doubled down on apprenticeships and training, starting with high schoolers, in an attempt to paint a more realistic picture of careers in a manufacturing sector becoming more and more advanced in its basic makeup.
About the Author: Michael D. White is a published author with four non-fiction books and well more than 1,700 by-lined articles on international transportation and trade to his credit.
During his 35 year career as a journalist, White has served in positions from contributor and reporter to managing editor for a number of publications including Global Trade Magazine, the Los Angeles Daily Commercial News, Pacific Shipper, the Los Angeles Business Journal, International Business Magazine, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News, Pacific Traffic Magazine, and World Trade Magazine.
He has also served as editor of the CalTrade Report and Pacific Coast Trade websites, North America Public and Media Relations Manager for Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, and as a consultant to Pace University’s World Trade Institute and the Austrian Trade Commission.
A veteran of the United States Coast Guard, White has traveled in both Japan and China, and earned a degree in journalism from California State University and a Certificate in International Business from the Japanese Ministry of Trade & Industry’s International Institute for Studies & Training in Tokyo.